Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Tool-making in the Stone Age

Paleolithic weapons factory was a rich source of obsidian tools from 1.4 million years ago

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Scientists call Mount Arteni in Armenia, an extinct volcano that has rich deposits of obsidian, a Stone Age weapons factory. They say from about 1.4 million years, Homo erectus people and later Homo sapiens made obsidian tools there numbering in the millions.

 “I have little doubt that members of the genus Homo were using Armenian obsidians for as long as both were around,” Ellery Frahm of the University of Minnesota told National Geographic.

Homo erectus fossils were found in 2013 relatively close by, in Georgia. Scientists said these were the earliest human fossils found outside of East Africa, dating back 1.8 million years.


Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan told National Geographic Mount Arteni was a gigantic open-air workshop where innumerable arrowheads, spearheads, hand axes, blades, scrapers and chisels were made. These tools circulated through an exchange route that predate by millennia the oldest known formal trade activity.

Mount Arteni, an volcano and source of obsidian for tools for hundreds of thousands of years

Mount Arteni, an volcano and source of obsidian for tools for hundreds of thousands of years (WOWARMENIA/Wikimedia Commons)

“Equipped with new technology that can precisely identify the origin of obsidian tools—even down to a single lava vein in a specific volcano—scientists have come to believe that Arteni was a central component in what amounts to a far-reaching Paleolithic arms industry. Its products have been traced north over the Caucasus to present-day Ukraine and west across Anatolia to the Aegean, almost 1,600 miles away,” wrote Frank Viviano in the National Geographic article.

“Estimates of Arteni’s output are staggering. Active production is thought to date back to the Lower Stone Age, when the region’s first skilled artisans were early Neanderthals. Their successors mined the same materials up to 1000 B.C.E. Gasparyan and his Armenian associates, along with their American, Japanese, and European collaborators, have harvested thousands of Paleolithic tools at Arteni and other local sites.”

5,000-year-old obsidian tools from the Greek Cyclades islands

5,000-year-old obsidian tools from the Greek Cyclades islands (Zde/Wikimedia Commons)

Gasparayan said that through the ages people, both pre- Homo sapiens and sapiens, produced millions of tools at Mount Arteni. He said it is impossible to count the number.

Because Armenia was a Soviet satellite, archaeology work stopped for a time near the end of the collapse of Communism in Europe. But by 2011, Frahm said, archaeologists were finding 500 pieces of worked obsidian per day in Armenia.

They know the obsidian found more than a thousand miles away is from Arteni from chemical traces in the mineral. Scientists can even tell which seam the stone came from.

Using a portable x-ray fluorescence instrument about the size of a cordless drill, Gasparyan, Frahm and their colleagues analyze a tool’s chemical composition in about 10 seconds without crushing it.

Unworked obsidian from Belgium

Unworked obsidian from Belgium (Thomas Quine/Flickr)

Obsidian was great for Stone Age weapons and tools. It is like glass and fractures to make extremely sharp edges. Modern people have even experimented with it for use in surgical scalpels. “But it is rarely found in Europe and Western Asia, with the notable exception of Armenia. In a land smaller than the state of Maryland, more than a dozen volcanoes hold significant obsidian deposits,” National Geographic said.

“Combine that with the fact that the Caucasus was among the main land bridges of early human migration, and the wide circulation of obsidian tools from Armenia assumes enormous significance. The Eurasian routes plied by Paleolithic obsidian are remarkably similar to those of Hellenistic and Medieval trade empires over 3,000 centuries later, including portions of the celebrated Silk Road, according to Gasparyan. But evidence is growing that those networks themselves are a recent chapter in the larger saga.”

Whether the obsidian and other stone tools in Stone Age times were used as weapons against other people or mostly or solely to kill wild game is the subject of much speculation among archaeologists, anthropologists and psychologists. Some scholars say humans are innately violent and speculate they were killing and making war from the beginning. But others have found little evidence of violence in prehistoric human fossils and rock art. It has been speculated that once humans settled down in communities, they had land and resources of their own that may have been coveted by others, and war resulted.

Featured image: Tool-making in the Stone Age (Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

Next article